One of the more common complaints that people have about our society these days is that we are somehow moving backward in a number of key areas. We point to how our quality of life has declined in one way or another, and we blame everything from the president to technology and declining moral values back to the president again (Thanks, Obama!).
As a writer, I understand how easy it is to fall victim to these notions. Some weeks, it seems like it's all too easy to write yet another piece about declining wages, or standards of living, or civil rights, or any number of other issues that enter and exit our local, state, or national discussions from time to time.
But never, ever in the early years of the 21st century did I imagine that I might have to write about the growing number of people who seem intent on dragging our nation backward into the world of just a few decades ago when diseases like measles, polio, and smallpox were still a threat to vast numbers of Americans. Of all the things that seemed settled, the belief that it was a smart choice to vaccinate yourself or your children was something we all could agree on.
Except that, apparently, it isn't, at least not anymore.
I could spend a lot of time citing studies and articles detailing the tens (or hundreds) of millions of people who have died from these diseases before vaccinations became widespread, but the sad fact is, I shouldn't have to. Almost everyone who has learned anything about these diseases knows these facts.
So why are we in 2015, more than 70 years after the measles vaccine was developed, having this conversation? Well, it has a lot to do with the bizarre notion that far too many Americans believe that everything is some sort of conspiracy. It's either a government conspiracy, or a big business conspiracy, or an alien conspiracy, or whatever other strange conspiracy people can conceive of. However, unlike the relatively banal and pointless arguments that most conspiracy theories engender, the dangers of being against vaccinations are quite obviously fatal, at least in regards to certain diseases.
Conspiracy theories aside, there is no denying that our nation's long-running national debate over "rights" is tied up in this controversy over vaccinations. Fortunately, few Americans agree with the anti-vaxxers. If you need a closer look at just how fringe this group is, take note that it appears that only two prominent members of the GOP, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have managed to side, if only half-heartedly, with anti-vaxxers.
You see, the same weird forces that turned almost every single conversation we have in this nation into some asinine battle between Big Government and Personal Choice have now moved away from the relatively new debates over drug laws and gay marriages and back into previously decided debates about the relative merits of, say, not getting measles. Or smallpox. Or polio. Or tuberculosis.
My favorite of these was the famed "libertarian" Rand Paul, who last week told CNBC that "most" vaccinations should be a matter of "choice," going so far as to promote the same kind of "mental disorder" stories that Jenny McCarthy spouts off that convince some parents not to vaccinate their children. The kicker to Paul's "choice" nonsense is that he plainly knows that vaccinations are well worth that risk. He made that plain when, the very day after making those comments to CNBC, he got a booster shot for Hepatitis A and even tweeted a picture of himself getting the injection.
While many might call Paul a "hypocrite" for doing such a thing, I won't go down that road (and not just because calling out someone as a hypocrite is an incredibly easy and mindless tack to take when you simply disagree with someone). Instead, we can look at Paul's apparently duplicitous behavior as a not-so-subtle hint to his followers: Sure, vaccination can be a choice, but it's a choice you should make for your family. On this issue, if nothing else at all in his public political career, Rand Paul is at least a little bit correct in his thinking. Let's just hope that the 30 percent or so of Americans who believe vaccination is a choice can take that hint.
After all, it would be sad to think that our great-grandchildren might one day grow up learning that it wasn't terrorism or an economic collapse that destroyed our nation, but rather a disease that was effectively eradicated in the 1950s.
For more from Mat Catastrophe, please visit his blog, The Short Form Catastrophe at mat-catastrophe.tumblr.com. You'll find posts that are too-long for tweets and too short for columns.